Rental Dementia: Little Landlords & the Crumbs They Deny

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It was a gorgeous, garden level floor-through in a turn of the century townhouse in West Chelsea. Layered with impressive original details, including an oversized working fireplace, the space was a measured blend of old world charm and modern convenience. The large bedroom was separated from the living room by a short hallway with original woodwork and detailed inlays. Light streamed through the windows in the kitchen, where new appliances offset antiquated cabinets. A small sunroom led out to the garden and its wooden benches were perfectly situated in the quiet shade. I’ve seen a ton of apartments over the years, and only a few have ever really stood out. This was one of them.

The owner was an old battle-axe, the kind of woman who holds her liquor while taking your watch in a poker game. Irish-German and tall, she presented herself firmly and gave very little away. In other words, she was a real hard ass. But most of these smaller one-building-landlords are. The one piece of property represents everything they own and everything they have ever worked for. They often live in the buildings they own, so they’re overly strict about who gets in: No attorneys, musicians, shares, smokers, bartenders, rockers, whores, bouncers, groupies, S&M spank monkeys, tattoos, pets, hipsters, real estate agents, other landlords, bikers, convicts, trust fund kids or diplomats. That’s the short list. In the end, you only got the apartment if they liked you.

Displaying none of these qualities or occupations, at least not outwardly, my clients seemed a natural fit. A married couple from Connecticut, they were looking for a pied-a-terre. He was the head of a charity, and she did what other thirty-something women, who come from loads of money, do, which is to say: I have no fucking idea. But one look at them and you knew she was the money and he was the climber. He looked like a beat up version of Tucker Carlson. I’m not kidding, bow tie and all. A real jerk, he was shaky, sort of nervous and a complete phony who smiled too much for his own good. His wife managed the little “Eddie Haskell” routine with stern nods and obvious regret. I imagined her waking in the middle of the night screaming, “I should have listened to my parents!”

I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like him. The landlady took one look at “Eddie” and saw straight through him. On our first walk to the building, I warned him about her, but he said, “Not to worry,” he could handle it. When we met her in front of the building, he started in with his “good little boy” routine, treating her with extra special tenderness and care. We entered the apartment, but you’d have thought he was walking his grandmother into surgery. She yanked her arm away, and her immediate dislike was plain and obvious.

It was a disaster. Normally when showing an apartment, the trick is to have the client want the space, but with little landlords it’s more of an audition. “Eddie” knew he had bombed, and pledged to bring his wife back who was certain to make a good impression, which she did. She was courteous, polite and reserved. The owner clearly didn’t approve of “Eddie,” but the wife and the fact that they loved the place could have made the difference. For the moment, the deal was still a possibility. Then Eddie decided to get cute and shave three hundred dollars off the asking price.

I balked at the offer and explained how, in this case, a low offer would be taken as an insult and destroy any chance of getting the place. He reluctantly came up another hundred, but was still two hundred shy of the $3,400 she was asking, which by the way was more than fair. A day later he called and wanted to have a drink. I thought he had gotten smart and wanted to up his offer. Instead he wanted to talk about my commission. He was wondering why I should split it with my company. I was the one doing all of the work. Wouldn’t it be better to walk away with a larger cut all for myself? I finally asked, “Ahh … what’s the point Eddie?” He wanted to pay me directly, and save himself some money. Who would know, he reasoned. I declined, and Eddie quickly changed the subject back to the old woman and how she was only playing hardball. “She’ll come around,” he said. A day later he began upping his offer in $50 increments, but the damage was already done. They didn’t get the place; they never even got an answer.

I thought that was it for Eddie and I. A week later he called again. He had found another place, but his new broker wouldn’t budge on the fee. He wanted to know if there was some way we could cut this other guy out and do the deal ourselves at a discount of course. I told him I was busy, and to buck up the 15 percent or he’d likely lose another place. That was the end of Eddie.

There is no moral to this story.

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